The time is 1:28pm. Eight-year-old Daniel Rukundo, a primary three pupil at Kitunga Boarding Primary School in Ntungamo district, yawns endlessly. His pale face signals his fatigue and hunger.
“Yes, I’m very hungry and the meeting is not ending,” Rukundo says softly as he checks his green digital watch that now reads 1:31pm.
Rukundo had travelled to Kampala along with five other learners to present a poem at the parent/guardian-led school feeding national dialogue organised by the ministry of education recently.
He says he usually has his lunch by 1pm, and is often allowed to run back home for meals. That morning, he had only one samosa, doughnut and a cup of milk, served to all participants at the office of the president conference hall.
“I see you have a cup in your bag. May be, give me some tea?” he asks politely, pointing at my empty mug. As we interact during this break session, he is joined by another learner, Patience Ahebwa, who comforts him that lunch would be served soon.
“Daniel, I am also hungry but our teacher has said that they are going to buy us something,” Ahebwa, a primary six pupil, told Rukundo.
While listening in to the presentations, my attention returns to Rukundo, who is now asleep. He is later awoken at 3pm as we sing the national and East African anthems, to end the dialogue and proceed to the restaurant for lunch.
On this day, Rukundo did not attend any lesson and his situation begs the question, about what other children who attend classes on empty stomachs go through every day. School lunch has not only remained a challenge to parents but also puzzled government on how to ensure that learners are fed.
A 2014 Out of School report by Unicef showed that the enrolment in schools that provide breakfast and lunch more than doubled. However, those that do not provide meals are losing children to other schools.
ARE SCHOOLS COPING?
According to Herbert Musinguzi, the head teacher at Kitunga Boarding Primary School, some parents in Ntungamo can neither pack a decent meal nor pay for children’s mid-day meals at school.
“My school has remained strong since 1950s as we encourage feeding at school. [But] learner absenteeism is so high in other schools because of hunger,” Musinguzi says.
In Gulu, with at least 55 UPE schools and 37,140 learners, district authorities are grappling with a similar issue. Until November 2016, only two of these schools provided lunch to some pupils, according to Caesar Akena, the acting Gulu district education officer.
He, however, says the trend has since changed after the launch of the school feeding programme by the state minister for Primary Education, Rosemary Sseninde, in the district last year.
Currently, some 22 UPE schools provide lunch to learners – thanks to parents’ initiatives, with four schools; Oguru PS, Awach P7 School, Lukodi PS and Panykworo providing lunch to all their learners.
“We now have improved daily attendance by learners and staff in schools. There are also better relationships with parents who visit the schools more often..." Akena says.
In 2013, government designed the school feeding and nutrition guidelines to improve child health, nutrition and educational performance. But some schools are still unable to implement them.
Tonny Mukasa Lusambu, the assistant commissioner for Primary Education, agrees that the guidelines were distributed in almost all schools but dissemination of information therein is still lacking.
“Some schools received the guidelines as early as 2015, but dissemination had not taken place because resources were not available. Now that we have received some funding from the ministry, we are ready to start,” Lusambu said.
According to the guidelines, no child may be excluded from class, or otherwise punished due to their parent’s failure to contribute to school meals.
“Parents in rural areas may also contribute food staples (beans and maize) in kind if it is the preferred mode for a given school,” say the guidelines.
HEAD TEACHERS WARNED
As dissemination of the guidelines kick off, Lusambu expects more children to get meals at school.
“We are optimistic that many parents will realise their roles and be able to embrace them [guidelines] although it has been a hurdle. People will wake up and perform their duties,” he said. He warned that all head teachers where children are not feeding will be reprimanded.
“I know it is not the work of the head teacher to feed the children but it is his/her work to mobilise meals for children. Where we don’t find children feeding, it is as a result of a weak head teacher or one who doesn’t care and is not in control of the school,” Lusambu said.
His views came after concerns raised by various head teachers that local leaders were discouraging parents from feeding learners, insisting that it was the role of government.
In response, Lusambu said: “I don’t want to come to a school and children are not feeding and then you start telling me that the chairman LC 1 refused the programme. A head teacher is supposed to seek political will and support, but not the chairman to come and give instructions in your school.”
He added: “If head teachers can read their roles properly, they can be able to see that one of them is to mobilise the community, parents and lead the school. They should not run away from their responsibilities. A head teacher, worth the title, must be able to mobilise the community into doing what the law says.”
During the school lunch consultative meeting, education minister Janet Museveni also launched the first-ever multi-stakeholder technical working group that will oversee feeding in schools.
“The committee must study and do a needs assessment from each area so that we plan a programme that fits a particular area,” she said. “In this strategy, we should not use examples of schools such as Kampala Parents School because we know feeding is not a problem there. Here, parents can provide the food and money; even when they are late to pay, ultimately they will pay because they have the money.”
She cited districts like Bushenyi where parents have both food and milk but their learners remain hungry at school and suffer malnutrition at home.
“In some poor families, they sell the food and feed peanuts to children. You will find a home with a huge banana plantation but all children are malnourished. These are issues where the committee needs to find solutions,” Ms Museveni said.
She advised the committee to test feeding programmes in Universal Primary Schools (UPE), Universal Secondary Schools (USE) and day schools in rural areas where parents can neither pack for their children nor feed them at home.
The 25-man committee, chaired by the director for Basic and Secondary Education, Robinson Nsumba Lyazi, comprises staff from the Education, Health, Trade, Agriculture, Water, Local Government and Gender ministries. Other members are from the office of the prime minister, National Planning Authority, World Food Programme, Unicef, Usaid, Kyambogo and Makerere universities as well as the professional society of nutritionists/dietitians.
According to the education ministry’s undersecretary, Aggrey Kibenge, the committee will also provide policy and technical guidance to government and service providers on appropriate school feeding.
“Members on the committee must advocate for guardian/parent-led school feeding strategy and monitor feeding across all Ugandan schools. They will come up with strategies on how this will happen,” Kibenge said. “We must be seen to move from awareness and sensitisation all the time to real action.”
He added that there should also be a deliberate effort to design a communication strategy with simplified key messages that will drive the school feeding campaign for parents and the local community to appreciate what is at stake.